Commonwealth Journal

Columns

May 13, 2014

Fiscal court should take a stand on harassment

Somerset — What a sad, sad day for Pulaski County. I’ve been following the complaints brought against Pulaski County Jailer Mike Harris for more than six months now. Actually, we had heard the complaints were coming down long before that —— try January 2013. As a reporter, I’ve done my best to present both the plaintiffs’ sides and Harris’ side,  knowing, however, that legal documents and “he said, she said” responses don’t ever really give us the complete story.

I’m not here to say he did it or didn’t do the things alleged in the complaints brought against him by two former detention center employees. As county officials have said, Harris has not been convicted of any crime. However, he has cost the county’s insurance provider, and thus the taxpayers, $275,000 in settlements over the course of two sexual harassment cases (one settled in court, one settled outside of it). But still, there has been no conviction here.

As per state law, an elected officials cannot be removed from office unless he or she has been convicted of a crime. Okay, so only the voters can remove someone who they feel is not representing their constituents well. That’s fair.

But, for the love of all things decent, is it too much to ask that Pulaski County Fiscal Court — the people who county residents have elected to represent them — at least take a stand? Just last week, county officials said they planned to pass a resolution announcing their disapproval of the alleged behavior of which Harris has been accused. A Sunday Commonwealth Journal article giving their side of the story plainly shows that.

Fiscal court’s public statement, a prepared comment signed off on by the entire court, explicitly declares that although they cannot remove anyone from office who hasn’t been convicted of a crime, they can take a stand against it.

“We want you, the citizens of Pulaski County to know that not one of us condones harassment of any type and will not tolerate it if it involves someone over whom we have authority.” There, readers, is the catch. They emphasize they cannot remove Harris.

But they continue with this: “Neither will we tolerate discrimination of any type, retaliation, bullying, assaults, or hostility either from or aimed at any of our employees. ... At the next meeting of the Pulaski County Fiscal Court, we will stand united against inappropriate behavior and make it public record by passing a resolution to that effect.”

Key phrases here are “next meeting,” and “passing a resolution.”

Fiscal court met on Tuesday morning. They entered into a long executive session over personnel. They returned and announced disciplinary action against a deputy jailer recently arrested for assault.

And nothing was said about the elephant in the room.

Resolution? What resolution?

County officials, when reached for comment Tuesday, said they were advised not to speak publicly about the issue. Their statement was that they were seeking outside counsel in drafting the resolution.

Okay. Why couldn’t they have said that in fiscal court? It still wouldn’t have been completely what their constituents need to hear, but it would have been something.

Pulaski County Judge-executive Barty Bullock and magistrates Jason Turpen, Mike Wilson, Tommy Barnett, Glenn Maxey, and Mike Strunk would do well to understand that not taking a stand at all is equal to condoning inappropriate treatment of employees.

Perhaps they were afraid of taking such a position against advisement. Perhaps they thought if they just didn’t address it (the approach they’ve decided to take since the first complaint against Harris came down in September 2013) it would just go away.

It hasn’t, and it won’t.

By not doing anything, they’ve made their stance on the issue loud and clear.

Or perhaps we’ll have to wait until after the upcoming election to see how they really feel.

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